When I first arrived in America, I noticed a lot of teenagers smoking. On campus I was shocked to see girls in their late teens and early twenties smoking outside the buildings. Rain or shine or even snow, these smokers were adamant about their addictive love for cigarettes.

In China, a majority of smokers are men. Women smokers are always considered to be morally tarnished. While the ban on smoking inside buildings in America seems to do little to discourage the habit, in China, the situation is even worse. Smokers drag their cigarettes stealthily indoors regardless of the “No Smoking” sign hung on the wall inside the buildings.

In this regard, American smokers are more obedient as they walk out of the buildings to smoke. As for how obedient, let me tell you the news from Virginia where I live. Because Virginia’s tobacco tax is the second-lowest in America, smugglers buy cigarettes there in bulk and sell them to retailers at enormous profit in New York and other high-tax states.

I hadn’t thought that the difference in tobacco taxes between states would promote smuggling domestically, but evidently it does. When I was studying in Pennsylvania, my smoker classmates were aware of an increase of cigarette prices. But they didn’t quit the habit. I thought they probably purchased cigarettes out of state just as some Pennsylvanians go elsewhere to buy liquor. Aren’t the tobacco retailers doing the same thing?

What challenges the authorities to capture the smugglers is how cannily they evade the law. Virginia has recently declared it illegal to buy and possess, with intent to sell elsewhere, more than 5,000 cigarettes. Smugglers often break the big quantity of shipment into a small number of cartons.

Black-market cigarettes are not new in my home city Guangzhou where imported cigarettes are smuggled mainly from Hong Kong and Macau. Their prices are usually cheaper than the market price. But the black-market cigarettes in America are sold at the local market price. Unless there is some kind of technology embedded in the black-market cigarettes that differ from the legal cigarettes, cracking down the tobacco smuggling will be a long battle. No wonder the news report says, when gun-running was at its peak, I-95 was known as the “iron highway”. Now it is the new Tobacco Road.


Filed under: Prose, Songyi Zhang's America